Friday, November 4, 2011

Winning Hearts and Minds

Rules as written. A phrase I’m not overly fond of. It’s usually trotted out by someone who is intent on arguing some point of order in the game rules that allows them some advantage in the game, either in the moment, or overall. But writing rules is a difficult task, and there is a reason that the language is (usually) precise. As rule systems become more complex, there are more opportunities for conflicts. And some players enjoy finding and exploiting those conflicts.

So, as a game master one of my jobs is to facilitate situations that will entertain my players. Some of those players derive the bulk of their entertainment from twisting rules as written and exploiting conflicts or oversights. Others just enjoy the mechanical process of manipulating rules elements and options. Either way, it’s not how I approach an RPG, and so I struggle a bit when trying to piece together a game such players will enjoy.

As a result I’ve tried to incorporate some game-mechanical complexity into my home brew rules. I use many of the conditions from 4e D&D, allowing players to apply them in particularly heroic moments. I have a point-buy character generation system cribbed from my friend Randy’s Lords of Chaos home brewed rules (those in turn grew out of various games including Champions, Stormbringer, and RuneQuest, to name but a few.) I don’t use classes. The first choice a player makes is whether to use weapons or spells, which sets the primary emphasis for the character, but does not prevent them from taking up the skill not chosen at later levels. All of this was done to entertain those who love to tinker.

In my heart though I’d really love a game without all that. Where each player came in with a character background, and perhaps one or two things their character was pretty good at. I’d set the scene, and the players would go about exploring and messing with monsters, and generally doing all the stuff that players do to wreak havoc on their imaginary world.

Robin Laws, a renowned game designer and writer is in the process of developing a game that touches on some more of the things I like. He calls the game DramaSystem, and the first release of it will be in the form of an Iron Age clan saga called Hillfolk. The whole idea sounds pretty cool.

One of the distinctions that Laws makes is the difference between procedural and dramatic events. Procedural events are the meat and drink of traditional RPGs. We’re busy with the procedures of looting tombs, slaying monsters, and saving villages. Dramatic events are the emotional interactions between people:

Dramatic scenes tend to break down as follows: one character is the petitioner, who seeks emotional gratification of some kind from a second character, the granter. The petitioner may want (among other possibilities) respect, forgiveness, love, submission, or simply to hurt the other person. The interaction can often be measured by a shift in power between the participants. Through an emotional negotiation, presented through dialogue, the granter either supplies the desired gratification, or denies it.
— Robin D. Laws, from A Column on Roleplaying

At this stage of development it’s hard to judge the relative merits of DramaSystem, but the concept that Laws is pursuing has a lot of promise. I imagine structuring encounters in my campaign specifically with the dramatic event model in mind. That is, my players are petitioning NPCs or one another for some form of emotional gratification, and the granter needs to be persuaded in some way to provide it. Developing relationships between PCs and NPCs that feature hooks for dramatic encounters may take some time, but I’ll definitely make it a priority. Expanding the game in this way allows me an opportunity to explore other possibilities in the game world. Having procedural in addition to dramatic components will make for a richer game, and I hope my players find it rewarding as well.

What do you think of the distinction between procedural and dramatic gaming? Does your current game contain enough depth to entertain you, or do you wish it had more? Does something like DramaSystem appeal to you, or are you content with procedural adventures?


  1. Quick comments and perhaps I'm missing your main points (sorry, if so).....

    a. It seems from your post that game systems are becoming more complex. I see a range of systems....some more complex than others. Patrick is more familiar with the simpler ones and can throw those terms out. I think WoD is relatively simple, old and new. I'm assuming you are talking specifically about D&D rules systems? Why is there a tendency for more complexity?

    b. As someone who works with a legal code, the more complex and difficult to interpret the rules, the more everyone gets to act like a lawyer. I thought dice were supposed to add a random element to the game. If you can tweak everything to your advantage, then where's the randomness? Why have dice in the first place? Where's chance?

    c. In oWoD and nWoD and Call of C, there are no character classes. They are, to me, more like archetypes. Archetypes to me speak of personality, traits, qualities from the universal consciousness. How are you going to ACT based on your archetype as opposed to simply...oh, I'm a fighter, I get to engage in melee combat. (although I guess you can throw spells now too! ;o)

    d. Fiasco is a GM-less game I've played once. Minimum rules, true role-playing and making up a story as everyone goes along. Complete cooperation. It worked for me once....trying to set up a couple of other games before year-end, but life keeps getting in the way. It's a joy to just pretend and never know what's going to happen next....we'll see if that fun maintains.

  2. I'll second that on Fiasco. It's very easy to run, and you can get it cheap (like 8 dollars or so). It's a great party game.

    In answer to your post, why not Fudge or Fudge on the Fly?

    Fudge has, as you know, been around forever. And it was designed specifically to get away from allowing the rules to impede role playing.

    I think in answer to Anna's question, complexity in rules comes mostly when players interact with the world rather than each other. Hero and GURPS, for instance, can get endlessly complex. If you want Matrix style combat or spaceship dogfighting, they can do that. Fudge, not so much.

    If you want to model physical actions, rules complexity can be your friend. If you want to model social interactions you don't need rules so much.


  3. @Anna: I think complex rule systems come from people wanting to play games with more consistent realities (that is, not as subject to the whims of a GM.) Dice help in resolving some game mechanics randomly, and a skilled GM knows when to employ them to balance appearances of GM whimsy.

    I don't mind having some mechanics. And a core percentage of those I play with want them. What I'm looking for is windows to employ aspects of the more free-form games (like those you mention.)

    DramaSystem appealed to me because of the model it uses for social interaction. It was a framework I felt I could employ to include more social elements in my game while still giving players some mechanics to grab onto (for those that need 'em.)

    @Patrick: I've heard a lot of fun stories about Fiasco. As I mentioned to Anna, I don't think one system is working for all my gaming needs (which includes my own needs and those of my players) right now. So I'm looking for elements that I might be able to combine to form a sort of Frankengame.